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March 4, 2015

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J. Patrick Coolican:

School finds measurable ways to help students achieve success

At Halle Hewetson Elementary, progress is the norm


Steve Marcus

Working-class excellence: Halle Hewetson Elementary principal Lucy Keaton has taken her school to new heights.

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

Principal Lucy Keaton has a wall in the office at Halle Hewetson Elementary School that is covered with data, multi-colored charts that resemble something you might find at the Pentagon.

The charts show that Keaton, her teachers, staff and students are excelling, a verdict cemented recently when the Clark County School District unveiled a new grading system—the “School Performance Framework”—and placed Hewetson among 37 “five star” elementary schools of 217 in the district.

What’s especially cool about Hewetson is that it’s near Eastern Avenue and East Bonanza in a working-class Hispanic neighborhood. Of 960 students from kindergarten to fifth grade, every single child is eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a common measure of poverty. The median home price in the ZIP code is $49,000. More than 90 percent of the children are English language learners when they arrive. By the time they leave, however, most will be voracious readers and at grade level in mathematics.

“It gives our community a wonderful message,” Keaton told me, “because it says no matter what, children can learn. It doesn’t matter what the challenges of the child are. We need to have high expectations. Low expectations equals low achievement.”

Part of the reason Hewetson is a five-star school is because the district has moved to what’s called a “growth model.” This places importance on progress rather than mere proficiency. Hewetson wins big points for bringing students from illiteracy to proficiency.

The idea is that students who are behind must be brought to grade level; students who are merely average must excel, and excellent students must reach still higher. This explains why many suburban schools that we may think are excellent actually aren’t—they’re bogged down by complacency and a lack of student progress, which drives down their assessments.

And that’s the beauty of the new school assessments—they clear away the clutter and help us see which schools are succeeding and which aren’t.

Click to enlarge photo

Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) awards Halle Hewetson Elementary School Principal Lucy Keaton a certificate that names her Nevada's most distinguished elementary school principal by the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

I asked Keaton for the keys to her success, and she called in literacy specialist Salvador Rosales.

There’s been a backlash against standardized tests, but not at Hewetson, where they love Keaton’s wall of data. Students are frequently assessed, and a month without progress is considered a month wasted.

“Teachers see each other’s results, so it keeps us all accountable,” Rosales said. A teacher who is outperforming his peers can share techniques. Students who have fallen behind are given extra attention and tutoring.

As for the objection that teachers who “teach to the test” are not really teaching, Rosales said a well-designed test will measure proficiency with the curriculum, and the curriculum should be a reflection of what we want students to learn. In other words, it’s not teaching to the test. It’s teaching. (Anyway, the notion that we wouldn’t use data to measure success or failure is absurd. Welcome to the 21st century.)

Parents play a big role, and Hewetson teachers don’t take a fatalist view of their parent community despite its working-class backgrounds.

New parents often don’t understand the urgency of the teachers, but soon they get with the program. “That’s how we keep parents accountable — we harass them,” Rosales joked.

Now, the parents have totally bought in, especially with the new five-star rating. Recently, the parents held a benefit yard sale for the school, and the morning I was there, they were outside directing traffic for the first time, Keaton said.

A final piece is discipline. I watched as classes of youngsters moved through a courtyard, arms folded over their chests, as required, usually clutching books, walking in perfectly straight lines, in total silence. It was monkish.

All of these elements together—assessment, intervention, rigor, parent involvement and discipline—have combined to change the culture of the school, Rosales and Keaton said. The library is filled with students after school. A student who spends his elementary school years at Hewetson will read 500 books. Children at the school now routinely say they want to be doctors or veterinarians. (Hey, what about the wealth and glory of journalism?)

Now it’s time to export that success to the entire district.

A version of this story first appeared in Las Vegas Weekly, a sister publication of the Sun.

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  1. I'm sure the union will be sending a message to this school's staff soon that basically says "back off, you're making the rest of us look bad."

  2. I would say, more than the amount of testing, it's the high level of parent involvement with the school that is driving its success. You can check that against the other highly-rated schools and see if it correlates. In fact, Takashi's article says that the county's highest-rated school has a 95% rate of parent involvement. But then, why waste an opportunity to crow about how awesome standardized tests are?

    Coolican disputes this, but teaching to the test is a bad thing. No one is saying data shouldn't be used in finding areas of need in the curriculum, but that's about as far as it should be used in schools. Curriculum should drive assessment, not the other way around, as the literacy specialist quoted here seems to think. Teaching to the test squeezes out more meaningful lessons in art, music, and GATE programs. Any segues beyond the curriculum are then used to teach test-taking skills (I've seen schools encourage their art, music, and library teachers to do just that). Teaching to the test also stifles critical thinking. I want better than that for my kids.

    Criticizing the overuse of data to measure success or failure is far from absurd, by the way. There are far more measures of success than any raw numbers can ever hope to quantify. I think as a writer, Coolican knows that.

  3. And it would seem that other parts of the country are seeing the fault with overemphasizing high-stakes tests.

  4. "Teachers see each other's results, so it keeps us all accountable..." When teachers collaborate, good things happen.
    When administrators enforce discipline and support effective teaching methods, good things happen.
    When parents get involved with -- and actually support -- their children's education, good things happen.
    It's not the power of money, folks, it's the power of good people.

  5. Interesting how when a school does well, the principal is praised and rewarded. However, when a school does poorly, the teachers are criticized and punished.

  6. For optimal school success, we must have the most important piece of the educational puzzle: the PARENT's genuine involvement!

    PARENTS are a child's first and lifelong teacher. To marginalize the profound influence PARENTS have upon a child's life is disasterous. And that has been the trend for decades: lack of PARENT inclusion and involvement.

    During the times of great change and innovation in our country (prior to the 1970s), parent and family involvement with the schools was expected, encouraged, and even enforced. A child's performance both academically and socially, reflected their parents, their up-bringing, and family culture. What happened? Look at where we are today!

    In this article, it was stated, "Parents play a big role, and Hewetson teachers don't take a fatalist view of their parent community despite its working-class backgrounds.

    New parents often don't understand the urgency of the teachers, but soon they get with the program. "That's how we keep parents accountable -- we harass them," Rosales joked.

    Now, the parents have totally bought in, especially with the new five-star rating. Recently, the parents held a benefit yard sale for the school, and the morning I was there, they were outside directing traffic for the first time, Keaton said."

    One of the best first steps Superintendent Jones did was to conduct home visits on students. This should be encouraged and supported throughout the school district for ALL struggling students as an effective intervention tool!

    It's high time to put the PARENT back into the educational equation, to respect them, and empower them as the case may be.

    Blessings and Peace,